By MATT WEISER Press Democrat Staff Writer
Opponents of an expansion plan at Sears Point Raceway have decided to take their battle to the courts.
On Wednesday, the project's leading critics filed a lawsuit in Sonoma County Superior Court against the race track and the county. They allege the project violates the county general plan and state environmental law.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in April approved the $35 million Sears Point project after nearly three years of debate and planning.
"I hope that, in addition to addressing the merits, we're sending a message to the Board of Supervisors that you cannot simply roll over and give promoters and developers free reign," said Marvin Krasnansky, chairman of the Yellow Flag Alliance, a group of race track neighbors and critics opposed to the project.
The other plaintiffs in the case are Tony and Nancy Lilly, rural neighbors of Sears Point who have complained to the county repeatedly about noise caused by auto racing at the track.
Sears Point President Steve Page had not yet seen the lawsuit on Thursday, but he called it "very unfortunate" and "frustrating."
"I'm not sure what they hope to accomplish," said Page. "This thing has been studied exhaustively for three years. We've made a tremendous number of compromises and accepted operating conditions on our new use permit that are more restrictive than anybody ever imagined."
Sears Point officials hope their project will reduce the crippling traffic caused by the largest racing events. They also say improvements are needed to modernize the facility and keep it competitive.
The project includes new roads and circulation improvements in and around the track, new seating on grandstands and terraced hillsides for 100,000 spectators, executive spectator suites, new shop facilities and offices, upgraded utilities and new permanent restrooms and concession shops.
The Board of Supervisors in April unanimously approved an environmental impact report and general plan amendments to give a green light to the expansion.
Also approved were more than 300 operating restrictions to reduce noise, traffic and other problems, subjecting Sears Point to the strictest rules in its history.
"Sears Point has been very cooperative in trying to respond to the concerns of the neighbors and others there," said Supervisor Mike Kerns, who represents the Sears Point area. He said he anticipated the lawsuit and called it "a little bit disappointing, but we'll just have to see how it shakes out."
As required by law, the board also approved a statement that Sears Point's benefits to the county outweigh some of the environmental problems it causes.
The track is an important economic force in the county, drawing national television coverage and packing hotels with race fans.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, represented by Santa Rosa attorney Les Perry, claim the project's traffic, noise and scenic problems were not adequately analyzed.
They also say the track's current impacts on the environment were not adequately studied, nor did the county sufficiently consider alternatives to Sears Point's proposal.
The Yellow Flag Alliance and the Lillys said they are not after monetary damages, but want the court to void the county's approval of the project and demand new environmental studies. They also want a temporary restraining order against Sears Point to prevent the project from proceeding.
The lawsuit will not affect existing operations at the track, and Page said he intends to proceed with the development despite the lawsuit.